A March in Hell
In the period May 1966 to March 1967 the men of Special Forces Detachment A-302 were awarded one Medal of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses, twelve Silver Stars, eleven Bronze Stars for Valor, and seventeen Purple Hearts, making it quite possibly the most decorated small unit in U.S. Army history. This for a unit that seldom had more than nine men operational at any given time.
Eight of the Purple Hearts were posthumous awards. During this period the men of A-302 and their indigenous troopers, known as Nungs, took part in every major battle in III Corps Tactical Zone, and a lot of smaller ones that nobody has ever heard of. They fought Main Force Viet Cong, North Vietnamese regulars, and all too often, poor leadership and downright stupidity on the part of “Regular Army”. They were known as the Mobile Strike Force, most often shortened to “Mike Force”.
This is the story of only one of those battles.
The formation of the Mike Forces was the result of a stark truth that had been shoved into the faces of the Special Forces A Detachments that were scattered in some 80 fighting camps throughout Vietnam. If you got into trouble, nobody was going to help you. Most Viet Cong attacks took place at night, for obvious reasons. The South Vietnamese Army didn’t fight at night. By the time ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units got around to reinforcing you, the action was likely over. Places like Nam Dong and Dong Xoai had learned that lesson all too well; only the stubborn resistance of a handful of Special Forces troops saving the camps from utter annihilation – as witnessed by the fact that Captain Roger Donlon at the former and Lieutenant Charles Quincy Williams at the latter were awarded the first and second Medals of Honor of the Vietnam Conflict.
III Corps Tactical Zone Camps Besieged
By the summer of 1965, the camps in the III Corps Tactical Zone (III CTZ) had been particularly hard hit. III CTZ ran from the bottom of the Central Highlands to the top of the Mekong Delta, and from the Cambodian border to the South China Sea. It included the capital city of Saigon as well as a number of other heavily populated cities and villages. It was a priority target for the Viet Cong and, increasingly, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Many of the fighting camps in the III CTZ were located squarely athwart the major supply route from the Cambodian border to Saigon and thus became the primary targets for the summer offensive that the Viet Cong hoped would win them the war before the major part of the American troops now arriving in country could foil their plans.
The Special Forces had been looking toward the American troops too, but for different reasons. ARVN couldn’t be counted on to help when needed, but surely the much better equipped, trained and motivated fellow Americans could.
The Green Berets found out pretty quickly that wasn’t necessarily the case. The history of the war in Vietnam is replete with cases of American conventional forces refusing to come to the aid of the beleaguered fighting camps, at least in anything like a timely manner. Many ascribed it to the dislike shared by so many regular army officers for the men they regarded as elitist cowboys. Far more likely is that it was a result of the casualty-averse policy of the American Army. It sounded hardhearted, and it was, but the math was inescapable. If a camp got completely wiped out, at worst you would lose twelve American soldiers; whereas if you mounted a rescue and ran into a Viet Cong ambush, you were likely to lose dozens, perhaps scores more. In a war where propaganda victories counted for more than battlefield success, the enemy fully understood the effect of more and more coffins returning to the United States.
The Fierce Chinese Nung Mercenary Force
Special Forces needed their own dedicated reaction forces, but where would they get them? There weren’t enough Green Berets available to fully staff the fighting camps, far less provide the manpower necessary for an effective reaction force. Indigenous troops led by a Special Forces cadre were an obvious answer, but where would they get reliable, hardy troops who would actually fight? No one was impressed with the soldierly quality of the South Vietnamese – a constant question was how could the Viet Cong fight so well and their adversaries so poorly?
By 1965 Special Forces troops had been in Vietnam for nearly five years and had formed some pretty good ideas about whom they could depend on. One group that often came to mind was the Nungs. The Nungs were ethnic Chinese who had, at various times, fled that country and had settled in and around Cholon, a suburb of Saigon. Recruited by Special Forces advisors, paid far more than their ARVN counterparts, and properly led, they had established a reputation as dependable, fierce fighters who could more than hold their own against the Viet Cong.
Many of them were already in service, as camp guard forces, forming some of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) companies in various “A” camps, or acting as bodyguards for important people. More could be recruited and trained. The nucleus was a company of Nung CIDG troops who had survived a fierce battle at Special Forces Camp Ben Cat, located adjacent to War Zones C and D, at the edge of the infamous “Iron Triangle.” Led by Captain (later Brigadier General) Joseph Stringham, the Nungs were
given less than two weeks to recruit new troops, issue equipment, train, and be ready to fight.
Fight they did, in places like Bu Gia Map, Bu Dop, and Loc Ninh. Oftentimes the intelligence that the Mike Force had reinforced a camp was enough to convince the VC to shift their attention elsewhere. When it didn’t, the Mike Forces’ fighting spirit and leadership were enough to bloody the nose of units far larger than they, even though they were not only outnumbered but outgunned as well. The Mike Force was armed with American weapons left over from past wars. In the early days of Special Forces involvement, when the CIDG program was still under the authority of the CIA’s Combined Study Division, a bewildering plethora of German, Danish, Swedish, French, English, and even obsolete Soviet weapons had been purchased from arms dealers all over the world.
The author’s own experience at Loc Ninh Camp in 1963 found him having to train Cambodian troopers armed with Schmeisser MP-40s, Danish Madsens, Swedish Ks, KAR 98s, French MAT-49s, Thompsons, Grease Guns, 1919A6 machineguns, MG-42s, BARs, M1 Garands, and M1 and M2 .30 caliber carbines. Imagine, if you will, the logistics of having to supply all the different types of ammunition.
If You Came to This Country to Die, the Mike Force Is the Place to do It
As time went on the exotic weapons went to village defense forces and the CIDG settled on obsolete American guns. The M1 Garand, an excellent weapon, was simply too much gun for the small-in-stature indigenous forces, so by the time the Mike Forces were formed almost every trooper was armed with an M1 or M2 carbine. Readers familiar with the weapon know that it was primarily intended for officers and senior enlisted personnel, and rear area troops. The .30 caliber carbine fired essentially a glorified pistol round. This against main force Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units armed with the SKS and the AK-47.
The successful actions of III Corps Mike Force proved the concept, and shortly thereafter 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters directed the other CTZs to form their own Mike Forces. Another Mike Force formed and stationed at the Nha Trang headquarters was kept in readiness to respond country-wide. With the fighting camp situation now somewhat stabilized (though there would be further fierce battles, particularly at the border camps), the emphasis now shifted from defensive to offensive operations. With that shift came the inevitable increase in body count. As Captain Tom Myerchin, commander of III Corps Mike Force during many of the most ferocious battles related, “When I got to Nha Trang I asked about the Mike Force. I was told that, if you came to this country to die, the Mike Force is a good place to do it.”
On 1 November 1966, the Mike Force had been patrolling around Loc Ninh Camp, close to the Cambodian border, in response to intelligence that the Viet Cong intended to overrun the camp just prior to the scheduled South Vietnamese elections. As so often happened, the threat didn’t materialize, whether from bad intelligence, the VC realizing they couldn’t do it, or another unknown reason. But new intelligence indicated a threat against Camp Soui Da, another frequent visiting spot for the China Boys. After some message confusion the three companies that made up the unit were assembled and air lifted to Soui Da.
In overall command of this battalion-size unit was Captain Tom Meyerchin. First Company—China Boy 1—was commanded by SFC Joe Lopez, who would forever be tagged in Special Forces circles as “China Boy Joe,” was assisted by SSG José Garza. SFC James Edgell, a Korean War vet, commanded second company—China Boy 2. Sergeant Paul Taylor, a medic, was his second in command (2IC).
Third company—China Boy 3—had SFC James N. Finn, with SFC George Heaps as his 2IC, and SSG James P. Monaghan, as Irish as you can get and later a legend in his own right, filling out the command
structure. Heaps had been CB-3 commander, but was getting ready to rotate and was taking the number two slot while Finn was getting broken in.
“Find and Fix the Enemy”
All three companies were helicopter-inserted into clearings surrounded by second-growth jungle in the Soui Da area. Their insertion points were six to seven kilometers away from one another. This in itself was not unusual. Their mission was to “find and fix the enemy,” whereupon other assets—air, artillery, conventional army troops—would destroy them. More important, at least in the opinion of the Mike Force leaders, was that it cut down on the possibility of fratricide, which could happen when one unit stumbled upon another.
CB-1, despite being the second one inserted, made the first contact. It collided with a VC company marching in the same direction and a fierce, but short, firefight ensued. No casualties were taken by First
Company and none, to anyone’s knowledge, were inflicted on the enemy. This, too, was not unusual. The enemy made every effort to disguise his losses, dragging off not only the dead but often the wounded, with hooks made for that purpose. CB-3 was by then having its own fight, and the outcome was different. Four Nungs were wounded, and Jimmy Monaghan was hit first in his right arm. Then a round hit his M-16, shattering the stock and driving pieces of plastic deep into his right hand, rendering both the weapon and his hand useless. Now the priority became getting the wounded out. When the call came out for a medevac and there weren’t any dedicated Dustoff ships in the area, helicopters on other missions would often divert to pick up the wounded. A bird on a “milk run” from Bien Hoa heard the call and was soon marking smoke and landing on the tiny LZ. Then came one of those circumstances that was completely unforeseen, unplanned, and immensely important.
SSG William Balt Hunt was aboard the chopper. He’d just returned from R&R in Hong Kong and had hopped on board when he found out that the chopper was making an administrative run to his “A” Camp at Soui Da. Hunt was not a member of the Mike Force at all, but soon became one.
Monaghan says, “The pilot told us the chopper was overloaded. I started to get off. Hunt stopped me, said he’d take my place. I gave him my web gear. He was unarmed and my weapon was useless, but nonetheless he was determined to help. He grabbed one of the carbines from a Nung who was being evacuated with me. He asked me to take the Christmas presents he’d bought in Hong Kong and make sure they got to his wife and kids. I promised that I would. That was the last I saw of him.” Forty-four years later that decision still haunts Jimmy Monaghan.
Hunt had been on the author’s team back in the newly-formed 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg. He was a big guy, over six feet, heavily built. Not one to push himself on you, but when needed, he was always there. Now his presence seemed to energize the beaten-up company. The Nungs of CB-3 took to him immediately. With renewed sense of purpose they moved forth to battle the Cong.
Later that day CB-1 ran into the VC again, and a sharp firefight ensued. SSG Garza took a round to his buttocks, which doesn’t sound bad, unless you’ve been shot in the butt. Immediate swelling ensues and walking becomes well-nigh impossible. During this engagement seven Nungs were killed. Lopez called for a medevac, Garza and the dead were loaded out, and Lopez continued mission, now the only American. After that the night passed uneventfully. The next morning the company ran into a minefield and one Nung was killed and three others wounded. Yet another medevac was called. An hour later the chopper arrived overhead, only to be greeted with a volley of small arms fire. The ensuing crash killed one crewman and wounded three others. That pretty much put paid to First Company’s day, what with pushing out the perimeter and engaging in sporadic, but sharp, firefights with the VC while yet another medevac came in and took out the casualties.
At this point one should mention the work the Air Force was doing to keep the China Boys alive. Forward air controllers (FACs) were constantly overhead, bringing in what passed as the wrath of God on the VC. It was a delicate ballet, coordinating strikes from F-100 SuperSabres, C-47 Gunships (the ancestors of today’s AC-130 Spectre), Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) Douglas A-1E Skyraiders, F-4 Phantoms, and Army heavy gunships, all with different flight characteristics, all with different ordnance. At times, and this would be one as well, the FACs had planes stacked from fifteen thousand feet to thirty thousand feet, making lazyeights, waiting their turn to drop ordnance. During the entire war there wasn’t a Special Forces detachment bar where FACs could buy their own drinks. The FACs were coordinating the strikes through the air liaison office at Bien Hoa. The pilot of one of the F-100s overhead was Captain Mark Berent. Berent had a special feel for the Mike Force, having decided once assigned to the job to find out exactly what the Mike Force did. Flouting custom, and possibly some Air Force regulations, he talked his way into a combat patrol with the unit. From then on he was the best friend they ever had.
Viet Cong Ambush
CB-3 (Finn, Heaps, and now Hunt) was having its own problems. Early afternoon they came upon an enemy base camp, the biggest and most sophisticated the Nungs had ever seen, even those who had fought the Viet Minh during the French Indochina War. Completely bunkered in, it had hospital facilities, a motor pool with trucks, generators, ammunition and supply dumps – clearly the enemy was here in force, and intended to stay. The complex was guarded by a platoon-size security force, which reacted with unaccustomed ferocity. The Viet Cong tended to fight first and then fade away. These guys weren’t fading anywhere.
The Nungs wisely retired and called in air strikes. As they waited they suffered under mortar fire from the complex, as well as machinegun fire from at least a couple of Viet Cong squads who had trailed after them. Four Nungs were wounded. Sergeant Finn moved forward to treat them, all the while under such heavy fire that one of the Nungs was wounded again as Finn worked on him. He directed CB-3 to increase the distance between them and the complex, remaining behind and coordinating the retreat until contact was finally broken. The FAC overhead was directing flights of F-100s out of Bien Hoa, striking on both sides of the column with 20mm cannon as they retreated. “Pour it on them!” CB-3 said. “I can hear them screaming.”
The air strike allowed the Nungs to back off more, making it to a small clearing where they hoped to be extracted. It was not to be. They would have to wait until morning. A lone chopper came in, took out casualties, and dropped off food and ammunition. They settled in for the night. They could hear digging just outside their perimeter. Finn and Heaps knew that meant that the enemy was not going to fade away, as so often happened in this war. They were preparing for the air strikes and indirect fire that would be coming their way when they got ready to assault. Finn was breaking out the ammunition and was in the process of distributing it when two companies of North Vietnamese attacked. Under withering automatic weapons fire Finn ran for a foxhole. He didn’t make it. He was hit in the head, dying immediately.
Command now went to George Heaps. Heaps was a Special Forces medic, one of that special breed of warrior/ healers. By the time an SF medic has completed a combat tour he has more time in the field than anyone else on the team. Every patrol that goes out wants a medic with them. There are two medics on the team. That means that the medic is going to be cycled through at least every other patrol, while the weapons, demo, operations and intelligence, and communications NCOs can, at least theoretically, go out on every fourth or fifth operation. David Ryder, another China Boy hand who later distinguished himself in Project DELTA and SOG, states that, “I learned more about tactics from George Heaps than [from] anyone else in my entire career.”
To their credit, there was no panic among the Nungs despite the heavy casualties they were taking. A line of at least fifteen enemy soldiers mounted the first assault. They were mowed down. Then came another forty, supported by well-sited heavy machineguns. Heaps got on the radio to Captain Myerchin and asked for help. Within thirty minutes tactical air was again striking the North Vietnamese with napalm, fragmentation bombs ranging from 1,000 to 250 pounds, cluster bomb units (CBUs), and rockets. Huey gunships from the 1st Infantry Division got into the act, trying to blast a way clear for the Nungs to get out of there.
Article by Major John F. Mullins, U.S. Army Special Forces (Ret.)